As I stepped from the now still Amtrak that had been my abode for the past 22-hours and onto the concrete platform below, I took in a deep breath of the fresh Montana mountain air. Montana was vastly different from the rolling hills of Iowa that I had traveled from; the landscape seemed barren and cold, the blue sky stretching for as long as the eye could see.
My dad nudged my shoulder and I stepped further onto the platform as I dragged my single suitcase behind and shivered against the sharp wind that tugged at the edges of my clothing like an intrusive hand. He gave me a small smile and nodded his head in the direction of the parking lot that could be seen from the raised concrete platform. We stumbled along towards the lot, attempting to get used to the lack of swaying from the train that had become so familiar in the past day.
Just as our toes brushed the loose gravel of the parking lot, an ancient looking blue van squealed onto the rock. I flinched involuntarily at the angry sound of rubber on gravel, and a cloud of dust settled around us as two immerged, opening the groaning doors of the van and stepping out. A heavyset man with a stiff, cream colored cowboy hat approached my father and extended a weather worn gloved hand, “The name’s Rich, nice to meet you. I’m assuming you must be Mark right?” My dad shook his head and with a smile stated,
“Nope, I’m John, but Mark was right behind us getting off the train. Let me tell you, getting a group of teenagers off a train is like herding cats”. Rich laughed at that and looked over our shoulders in the direction of the now slowly moving train lumbering further west. As I turned my head to glance in the same direction, I saw a steady stream of young people carrying their various bags towards us: my youth group.
Rich’s companion finally made her way towards us and extended her own hand to take mine, “Hi, I’m Carey! You must have come with the Chicago group right?” I nodded my confirmation and offered a smile of my own.
My youth group had made the long trek out to the barren Montana landscape to do mission work on the Blackfoot Indian Reservation.
As the rest of our group ambled away from the train platform I began to wonder what experiences could be waiting for us here. My knowledge of Native American culture before this trip was atrocious at best. My basic history classes touched briefly on interactions with the Native Americans, but I had never learned of their culture and way of life. I had no inkling of what to expect once we stepped out of the rental cars and onto Blackfeet soil, and when my feet did step off the proverbial cliff into a foreign world I was surprised.
After lugging all of our bags into the creaking old van with chipped blue paint, my youth group departed from the train station with only one destination in mind, Browning Montana. As we drove towards the blue tinted mountains lining the horizon, snow glinting from the tallest peaks, I glanced at the looming sky above us. Never in my life had I ever seen something so vast, so open, so free.
Driving into Browning was something of a shock, I was surprised at the combination of extreme poverty, small businesses, stray dogs, rumbling cars, and the hints of Native culture that permeated the area. It seemed both normal and alien at the same time.
Thin men with chipped solo cups sat on door stoops looking for a kind hand to offer some loose change. Pot holes in the road made the last five minutes of our drive seem like a roller coaster of up and down motion. It was a world of contradiction; a regular gas station sat empty on one corner as a man in traditional garb sauntered through the midday sun.
We arrived at the De LaSalle Blackfeet School in the heart of the town and unloaded our sleeping bags, coolers and suitcases all thinking over what we had seen during our drive into town, wondering in what ways we, young kids from the Midwest, could help.
During the following days, we helped to add new paint to walls in the school, organized teacher’s classrooms, listened to guest speakers from the tribe, helped build a new bunkhouse and explored the mountains surrounding Browning. It felt amazing to work with my own hands to help others; simple actions turned into priceless opportunities to serve.
The speakers that came to visit us from the tribe informed us of the history of their language and the cultural traditions that set the Blackfeet aside from other Native American tribes. They shared the hardships faced by many natives today such as addiction and poverty while informing us of their fears of the future, but also their hopes for a more accepting world, one that appreciated their history and respected all people.
Every day was a new adventure where we met all sorts of people and learned what it means to really serve others. We would gather in small groups and share our experiences from the day, praying that by the time we departed back for Chicago we would have left a mark on Browning Montana. A mark that would be remembered for years to come.
The moist poignant memory from the trip remains imprinted forever in my mind; my small prayer group was sitting in the school gym late one night discussing what we had experienced on the trip and how it had affected us. It was amazing to see that we had all come to the same realization throughout the week as one of my best friends mused,
“I think it’s really important to realize and note the changes we have gone through on this trip. Originally we came here hoping to help others and lend our resources to make their lives better; it was as though we had nothing to gain, only to give. But I think that we actually were gifted something so much greater than what we gave…everyone here welcomed us into tribal life and shared with us their culture and stories and kindness, and that kind of gift is priceless”.
Looking back on that conversation now I realize how right she was. Riding on that train to Browning, I could only think of how much of an impact we would have on the Blackfeet people, but I left realizing how much they impacted me. I learned of the unfairness of their lives, and the hardships faced by so many, yet rather than shutting out all people they welcomed us with open arms and hearts. It is because of them that I learned how to love unconditionally and for that I will be forever grateful to the people of the Blackfeet Nation.